Walking Buses and Bike Trains

Another school year has started and with it a new batch of high schoolers driving to school, and schoolbuses carrying youngsters for their first year.

We suggest a better way to get to school and back.

Walk and Roll

Then and Now

Then and Now

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1969 about 50 percent of all children walked or bicycled to school and about 87 percent of kids lived within a mile of their schools. Today fewer than 15 percent of schoolchildren walk or ride a bike to school. As a result, many kids today are less active, less independent and less fit than their parents and grandparents were at the same ages years ago.

Why the drastic decline?

Parents of schoolchildren commonly reported: distance to school, traffic danger, adverse weather conditions, fear of crimes against children, and crime in the neighborhood as barriers to active transport.

Barriers and Solutions

  1. Distance – Distance to school has increased over time due to school closings and school sitings further away from population centers. This does not explain the decrease in children living within 2 miles or less of a school.


    Distance to School for Youth 5 to 18 - NHTS 2001


  2. Changes in weather patterns were not found to be a significant contributing factor in the decline of active transport across four regions of the United States (North, South, Central, and West).
  3. Fear – While actual crime statistics indicate a decrease in crime over the 30 year period, parent’s fears trump reality. In 1973, violent crimes against youngsters 12-19 averaged 80 cases per 1,000. Thirty years later, in 2003 the rate dropped to approximately 50 per 1,000.
  4. Traffic – Congestion seems to play a major factor in decreased active transport. In just 20 years, (1982-2002) the national “total hours of delay” rose from 0.7 billion to 3.6 billion, representing over a 500% increase (Schrank & Lomax, 2005). The irony is that the congestion is compounded by more parents driving their kids to school! The following points are worth noting:
    • The use of motorized vehicles for transportation to/from school has increased from 16% in 1969 to 46% in 2001 (unpublished data from NPTS and NHTS)
    • The number of cars on the road between 7:15 and 8:15 a.m. increases 30% during the school year (Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting, 2003).
    • 20–25% of morning traffic during the school year is parents driving kids to school (Kallins, SR2S)

    While the CDC notes that pedestrian and bicycling injury/death rates have actually declined over time, it’s unclear whether the decrease is due to the increased use of cars (or passive transportation) to take kids to school. While we might suspect that to be the case, we cannot find supporting data and so will leave it at that. However, there are additional data points that need mention:

    • 50% of children hit by cars near schools are hit by cars driven by parents of students (Kallins, SR2S)
    • 2/3 of drivers exceeded the posted speed limit in school zones during the 30-minute period before and after school. (National Safe Kids Campaign, 2002)
    • many motorists at intersections in school zones and residential neighborhoods violated stop signs (national pedestrian injury fact sheet, 2004)
      • 45% by not coming to a complete stop
      • 37% by rolling through
      • 7% by not even slowing down

The two significant barriers to active transport are distance and traffic which have changed for the worse. Safe Routes to School (SR2S) puts forth the 5 “Es” as the key to a solution: Engineering, Enforcement, Education, Encouragement, and Evaluation; because without evaluating the other four Es, the effectiveness of the overall program cannot be measured or improved.

Short of moving schools closer to the people attending them,

  • For distances greater than 5 miles, move the drop-off / pick-up point to an established meeting place within a mile of school and create Walking School Buses where adults can accompany groups of children walking to school. Not only will this relieve traffic congestion around the school, having adult supervision addresses the barrier related to the fear of crime and allows for the teaching of pedestrian skills to children. In the 2010-11 school year, Minneapolis district staff estimate that students who used the Walking School Bus logged a combined 3,200 miles! How many tanks of gas would that be? How much air pollution and attendant noise was reduced as a result?
  • For distances less than 5 miles, establish a Bike Train where adults act as Engineers and Cabooses of the train starting from a given location and stopping along the way to gather additional riders. Bike trains are more involved than walking buses and thus require some considerations.
    Our future. Photo: Nicole Burgess

    Our future. Photo: Nicole Burgess

    Bike trains:

    • are best suited for older elementary children
    • require riders to wear bicycle helmets.
    • Before starting the program, providing children with practice and training on bicycle handling and rules of the road is highly recommended.
    • More adult supervision is needed than for walking. One adult for every three to six children is recommended.

    For a great interview of a Mom That Makes a Difference, read about Nicole Burgess from San Diego who single-handedly started a bike train of her own and not only saves time doing it, but saves other parent’s time as well as providing a fun and active way for kids to get to and from school.

For traffic related barriers to active transport, solutions could involve:

  • Enforced Speed Zones (Kallins, SR2S)
  • Lowered speed zones: Reduced child pedestrian casualties by 70%
  • Traffic Calming around the school:
    Speed humps: Speed humps were associated with a 53-60% reduction in the odds of injury or death among children struck by an automobile in their neighborhood. (Tester et al, 2004)
  • Increased sidewalks and bike paths to and around school areas
  • Police patrolling
  • School policy change;
    According to a survey conducted in 1999, 7% of schools have policies that restrict children from walking or biking to school.

For a list of resources, please see the Safe Routes to School (SR2S) Resources page, or the comprehensive CDC kidswalk resource page.
For a great true story on overcoming anti-bike school policy, see Why Johnny Can’t Ride.

“But It Can’t Be Done…”

Oh, would you like some cheese and crackers to go with your whine? Not only can active transport be done, it has been done well as seen in Marin County, which improved its walking rates by 64% after implementing Safe Routes To School (SR2S; Staunton 2003).

“What’s in it for me?”

Just some of the benefits of letting your child walk or bike to school:

  • It increases physical activity, which
  • Decreases risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease later in life
  • It Increases attentiveness and readiness to learn at school
  • It teaches responsibility, independence, and is empowering
  • It increases neighborhood safety by putting more “eyes on the street”
  • It saves you money on gas, wear and tear on your car, and wear and tear on your streets
  • It decreases traffic congestion at the school and the chance of traffic accidents
  • It’s fun for children
  • It’s good for the environment, and improves air quality in your neighborhood.

This October is International Walk to School Month, and features Walk to School Week: October 1-5, 2012, and Walk to School Day: October 3, 2012.

Are you ready with your Bike Train or Walking Bus?

Registration is now open for Walk to School Day 2012.

Did you know:

  • 74% of 2011 Walk to School Day events led to policy or engineering changes,according to Walk to School organizers.
    The top 3 changes were:

    • 35% of events prompted the addition of promotion of walking and bicycling to existing school policies.
    • 35% of events led to the addition of sidewalks, paths, crosswalks or crossing guards.
    • 22% of events led to the addition of signage near school.

New! – Route assistance for Walk/Ride to School is available for OCBC members. Send a note to us with your city, starting and ending point, and we will craft a route for you. Please specify .gpx or .tcx format. Thanks for your support!